Exactly one year ago, the Indian media speculated about the rapprochement between New Delhi and Riyadh after the Saudis handed over a key figure (carrying a Pakistani passport) to the Union government: Abu Jundal, the man who was allegedly on the phone with the LeT terrorists during the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. In 2010, Manmohan Singh had signed the "Riyadh Declaration" during a most successful visit: India and Saudi Arabia committed themselves to sharing information on terrorist activities and signed an extradition treaty — indeed, in addition to Jundal, the Saudis have extradited two other alleged members of the Indian Mujahideen, A. Rayees and Fasih Mehmood, in October 2012. This year, in January, A.K. Antony paid his first visit to his opposite number in the Saudi government. Pakistani authorities were very nervous about these developments, which went on a par with an increasing mutual dependence in the domain of energy, since India has become the fourth-largest customer of the Saudis for oil (after Iran lost ground on the Indian list because of sanctions).
But that was before the comeback of Nawaz Sharif, at a time when Pakistan was ruled by a PPP government the Saudis disliked openly. As early as October 2008, a few weeks after the election of Asif Zardari as president, the deputy chief of mission of Pakistan in Riyadh told his opposite number of the American embassy that the Saudi government would not help Pakistan (which eventually got only $300 million of aid in 2008) and would be "waiting for the Zardari government to fall" (US embassy cable dated October 16, 2008 revealed by WikiLeaks). The Saudis had no confidence in Zardari, who, they suspected, was a Shia (ibid April 9, 2009).
As a result, they cultivated their relationship with the army (thanks to which Islamabad got $700 million of aid in 2009 at the Pakistan donors' conference in Japan) and, in parallel, they prepared for the comeback of Nawaz Sharif. Here, one needs to realise that, since the 1970s, as the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, once said, Saudis "are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants". Indeed, Riyadh keeps interceding and mediating not only between the US and Islamabad but also between the Pakistani army and the civilians, as evident from its role in the "Memogate".
Sharif has been close to the Saudis for years. Some rumours attribute this proximity to his personal religious affiliation by suggesting that he belongs to the Ahl-e-Hadith, the school of thought that has the most obvious affinities with Wahhabism. But there are other, more obvious, explanations. First, Nawaz has been a creature of Zia-ul-Haq, the man who promoted the rapprochement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia even more than Z.A. Bhutto (who initiated the process though). In the 1980s, Zia armed and trained the mujahideen fighting the Soviets with the financial support of the Saudis (and the US) and launched an Islamisation policy that was implicitly directed against the Shias at a time when Khomeini intended to export the Iranian Revolution.
Not only was Sharif initiated into politics in those critical circumstances, but when he was prime minister in the 1990s, he cultivated his good relations with the Saudis. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Benazir Bhutto and "her" chief of army staff, Mirza Aslam Beg, had somewhat irritated the Saudis, first, by refusing to withdraw the Shia soldiers from the soil of Saudi Arabia where up to 20,000 of them had been stationed so far (as a result, the total number of troops was drastically reduced) and, two, by refusing to take part in the Gulf War against Iraq. Nawaz restored good relations with the Saudis during his second term. While A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, had dealt with the Iranians — who were already eager to become nuclear — in the 1980s, Nawaz turned to the Saudis. In 1998, Riyadh assured Islamabad that Pakistan would get the support of Saudi Arabia if its nuclear test resulted in international sanctions. According to Abdul Sattar, foreign minister of Pakistan from 1999 to 2002, the Saudis provided 100,000 barrels of oil daily on a deferred payment basis — this assistance amounting to $500 million a year was converted into a grant after five years. In exchange, Nawaz invited then Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, to tour secret nuclear facilities in May 1999 — they visited (together with A.Q. Khan) the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and an adjacent factory where the Ghauri missile is assembled.
Four months later, Sharif was deposed by Pervez Musharraf. The Saudis (along with the Americans) interceded in his favour and he went into exile — with his whole family — in Jeddah. The seven years Sharif spent in Saudi Arabia reinforced the links he was already cultivating with the ruling dynasty. Not only do rumours (again propagated by US embassy cables) mention that his daughter got married to a grandson of King Fahd (probably before he died in 2005), but Sharif was "favoured with reserved prayer space in the Prophet's Mosque in Medina". He also received authorisation — and some financial support — to start a business in Jeddah.
The Saudis were naturally instrumental in helping the Sharifs to return to Pakistan in 2007 when Musharraf appeared to be on his way out. The PML-N lost in 2008, but won an overwhelming majority five years later, and Sharif is now fully in command. How will he deal with his Saudi patrons?
While several Pakistani organisations, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, raise money primarily in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh expects a clear anti-terrorist policy from Islamabad. That was probably the message the Saudis wanted to convey when they extradited Abu Jundal to India. Nawaz should be in a position to deliver on that front. The fact that he wants to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban should also be to the liking of the Saudis (who, along with Pakistan and the UAE, were the only ones to recognise the Taliban regime in Kabul in 1996).
The main bone of contention may be Iran, the main rival of Saudi Arabia in the region. The energy crisis in Pakistan is such that, in his "national energy policy" that has just been finalised, Sharif has announced that Pakistan will have to import 1,000 MW of electricity from Iran (as much as from India, by the way). The Saudis may object, saying that Pakistan should help to isolate Iran, and offer an alternative energy package. But Pakistan may resist this kind of pressure, and may even continue to promote the idea of an Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline in order to maintain a channel of communication with an important neighbour (especially at a time when the border province of Balochistan is in turmoil) — and also in order to balance one country against another. Pakistan has already played that game in the past with larger powers — the former USSR, the US and China. It can play it between Iran and Saudi Arabia today in an interesting context — the closer to the bomb Iran is, the more Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan. Islamabad, eventually, may be asked by Riyadh to install some of its missiles (possibly with nuclear warheads) on its soil in order to resist the Iranian threat. And such a deployment will not be for free. We knew that Pakistan was a geopolitical rentier state because of its position between Afghanistan (of American interest) and India (of Chinese interest). Now, it may also be a rentier state because of its border with Iran (of Saudi interest).